The Tree of Life

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It’s the iconic image of Africa – a giant, lonely tree on a grassy plain with its almost manicured green crown.

This tree, the baobab, also known as the “Tree of Life” or the “Upside-Down Tree,” because of its root-like crown, has fascinated scientists and artists for millennia.

Part of the fascination stems from how these wide-trunked trees, which can reach heights of up to 82 feet, have the ability to create and maintain their own ecosystem in dry, arid regions.

Still, scientists have long pondered its origins. Now, however, a new study on baobab DNA is pinpointing its early beginnings.

There are currently eight species of baobabs, six of which are in Madagascar, while the others are found across continental Africa and Australia.

A research team analyzed genomic data of all eight species and discovered the tree first emerged in Madagascar. Ocean currents later spread the baobab seeds to Africa and Australia, where the tree adapted to its new environment and evolved into a completely new species.

“This work has uncovered new insights into the patterns of speciation in baobabs and shows how climate change has influenced baobab distribution and speciation patterns over millions of years,” co-author Ilia Leitch said in a statement.

But the findings also showed that some of the plants suffer from a very low genetic diversity, which makes it hard for them to develop resilience to environmental changes, according to CBS News.

Currently, the trees are facing a conservation battle, with three species considered to be threatened with extinction and one is critically endangered.

Deforestation and climate change are limiting their range, while the habitats of their pollinators, such as fruit bats and hawks, are shrinking.

The authors hope that their study can help conservationists come up with better strategies to protect the baobab.

Correction: In Wednesday’s NEED TO KNOW section, we said in our “Shuffling The Deck” item that Sheikh Abdullah bin Zayed is the foreign minister of Saudi Arabia. He is in fact the foreign minister of the United Arab Emirates. We apologize for the error.

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